I have fond memories of flouncing around my girlhood home, a high-ceiling Gothic Revival, wearing an 1880s bustle gown my mom had purchased in an antique shop. It was a beauty of taupe fringe and olive silk satin and silk taffeta. The bodice front closed with a row of hand-painted mother of pearl buttons. The adorned sleeve cuffs ended in a four inch thick ruffle of the finest lace I have ever seen. The bustle portion was adorned with beaded appliques. It was a very expensive gown, and perhaps, due to the lack of wear, may have been made for a wedding. It compares in detail and quality to many of the examples of Worth gowns of the period I have seen, but it has no label or name to identify it.
The elegant bodice peplum was cut to fit the small of the back, pleated and folded like a cascade and highlighted at fabric stress points with jet beaded appliques. I would run my fingers up and down to feel the whale boning, and imagine some grisly, roughened Victorian sea captain who may have wrestled some monstrous beast of the deep to bring the bones onto land and eventually more than a century later, into my young hands. The whole ensamble was a marvel in texture. Every surface of the bodice and skirt were adorned with pleating and ruffles, drapes and appliques. Even the back of the bodice was a symphony of seam lines, rising from the waist like music from an orchestra.
Handling and examining the dress gave me more for my imagination than any book or novel. Wearing it was even more intense, as though I were possessd by the ghost of an era. It never lost its stale, dry smell, the smell of brittleness from disintigrating satin and horsehair stiffening. There was no body odor or sweat stains on the interior so it must have been worn only once or twice. I could describe the wearer – about five feet, four or five inches, a smallish, though not remarkably small waist, and a bosom that barely exceeded the measurements of the waist – but there was little of her in the garnment beyond her measurements. I awaited to feel some signs of the woman for whom the dress was made, such as a sourceless smell or rush of feeling, but little came beyond a great urge to sit up straight and perch on chairs. I did not have the appropriate undergarnments: no corset, no bustle. When I buttoned all of those marvelous buttons, and hooked the gathered olive satin yoke below my neck, the odor of brittleness was strongest and I felt an overwhelming stiffness in my neck. Being filled with a girlish imagination, I imagined that the girl/woman who had worn the gown died from a broken neck. I think now perhaps it was just resulting from the stiffness with which I held my back to fit into the thing.
I could wear the dress until my body began to mature and my chest measurement exceeded those for whom it was made. I revisited the gown ten years ago, hoping my matured body could find some space admidst its sewn silk. Excitedly, I took it from its tissue paper-lined box, looking at its construction and components with a whole new set of eyes, and ready to plunge into its confines in hopes of an acceptable fit. But alas, though the skirt seemed to fall better, the bodice button holes and their corresponding buttons would not meet beyond few inches above the waistline. The effect was gone, as the bodice dangled awkwardly. It was all the discomfort without the grace and propriety I had remembered.
Why do I post this seemingly random story? Because this evening I will be reunited with my fabled, phantom gown for the first time in ten years. It’s a homecoming: the dress inspired the project in the next entry, the project inspired a reunion with the dress, a poor thing that has been unloved in an ancient attic for ten years, where it could only find company in an occasional bat, hornet, and one-sided conversations with the prattling rain.
Pictures of this olive objet d’art are coming soon…